Summary: Sin and suffering, the love of God and salvation.
SIN AND SUFFERING, THE LOVE OF GOD AND SALVATION.
(A) Numbers 21:4-9.
Much of the books of Exodus and Numbers tells the sad history of a people who for forty years - whilst being delivered, led, and provided for by God - made a profession of complaining. The turning point came when a pole was raised up in the desert with a symbol of the enemy upon it (Numbers 21:8). There and then a generation of wilderness wanderers were called to grow up, cease their constant complaining, enter into the faith of Abraham (Galatians 3:9), and hasten on their journey towards the fulfillment of the promises.
The symbolism of the serpent on a pole was taken up by Jesus (John 3:14-15). Sin died at Calvary (2 Corinthians 5:21) - and death died, the wages of sin (Romans 6:23). All who fix their eyes upon Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2), trusting in His finished work upon the Cross, enter into a new state of being called “eternal life” (John 3:16).
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave His one and only Son, so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:14-17).
If a serpent on a pole was a shocking symbol for a monotheistic people, so is the picture in our minds’ eye of the broken body of a man impaled upon a wooden cross. Yet, in both instances, this is what God commanded. Without the brazen serpent there was no healing for the Israelite who had been bitten by a snake (Numbers 21:9) - and without the Cross there is no salvation for any one of us, bitten as we are by the sting of death which is sin (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).
Jesus was “lifted up” in the crucifixion, so that everyone who believes in Him, trusting not in themselves but trusting in His sacrificial blood, would have eternal life. This was, and is, the supreme act of God’s love.
Our God is the God of the unusual. Looking at the symbol He has commanded brought healing to the poisoned Israelite, and similarly brings salvation to the would-be Christian. There is no time for prevarication: do this or die.
This Psalm is a celebration of the wonderful works of God. The situations referred to in each of its word pictures could no doubt be attached to some specific event in the history of God’s people. However, they are common experiences, and relevant for each of us, and all of us collectively, in all generations.
Psalm 107:1 is a familiar verse: if not from church liturgies, then from the other times when the same words appear in the book of Psalms. Psalm 106:1 is a case in point. So, yes, let us “Give thanks to the LORD for He is good: for His mercy endures forever”!
The tales of weal and woe which this Psalm reflects leave us with one enduring fact. Whether our woe, or our well-being, is deserved or undeserved: the fact remains that “the LORD is good” (Psalm 107:1). And, yes, ‘All things’ DO ‘work together for good, to those who love the Lord’ (Romans 8:28).
In Psalm 106:47, the writer appealed to the LORD for his people to be gathered from among the heathen. The answer comes in Psalm 107:3, where they are “gathered” from the four points of the compass. Just like the church.
And, like the church, “Let the redeemed of the LORD say so” (Psalm 107:2). God’s wonderful works reach their zenith in the resurrection of Jesus, and our redemption through Him. Testimony is so important in the witness of the church: ‘I once was lost, but now am found’.
As we come to our chosen word picture (Psalm 107:17-22), one strong contender for its Old Testament background is Numbers 21:4-9. There the complaint of the people of Israel was, ‘no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread’ (Numbers 21:5). What an attitude to God’s gracious and miraculous provision!
The indictment against such “fools” (Psalm 107:17), is that “their soul abhorred all manner of food” (Psalm 107:18). The response of the LORD to “their transgression, and to their iniquities” is to send “affliction” (Psalm 107:17), causing them to “draw near to the gates of death” (Psalm 107:18). In the example we have cited, this took the form of a plague of fiery serpents, which ‘bit the people and caused many of the people of Israel to die’ (Numbers 21:6).